While temples in the Kingdom are welcoming Buddhist laities for food offerings during this year’s annual 15-day Pchum Ben festival, the monk at the Three Rocks pagoda located on the western edge of Phnom Tbeng in Preah Vihear province is passing up offerings from the local community, even during the religious festival.
“No, not at all. During these Pchum Ben days only you [tourists] bring some money to contribute to the pagoda’s construction. As for the local people, they do not even bring me bowls of rice,” said Pen Sorn, head monk at the pagoda.
The Buddhist monk told The Post that this does not mean that locals are not followers of Buddhism, but only that their livelihoods are hard, as well as the fact that they are working as a community to construct the pagoda’s new temple
Pchum Ben is a 15-day Cambodian religious festival which falls in September or October. Festival celebrations culminate on the 15th day of the tenth month in the Khmer calendar, at the end of the Buddhist lent, Vassa.
During this period, it is said that the gates of hell are opened and ghosts of the dead (preta) are presumed to be especially active.
In order to combat this, Cambodians make food-offerings to Buddhist monks who perform ritual prayers to benefit the ghosts, giving them the opportunity to end their period of purgation. Other ghosts are imagined to leave hell temporarily, only to then return to endure more suffering.
According to Cambodian culture, it is also believed that deceased relatives of the living, who are not in hell but in heaven or otherwise reincarnated, will generally benefit from the ceremonies.
At the Three Rocks pagoda, visitors are generally surprised to see the ongoing construction of a concrete temple in Chhumvoreahongsey La’ang Thmor Bei Dom, a hard to access area located in the wilderness at the peak of Phnom Tbeng.
Upon his arrival at the pagoda in 1982, Sorn decided to build a temple at the highest point of Phnom Tbeng with the purpose of having a peaceful place for meditation.
Other facilities at the pagoda are the Three Rocks worship shrine, a dining hall and the monk’s house.
But back in the early 1980s, there was only a small wooden hut at the place of worship, named after three rocks which many locals believe to have spiritual and mystical powers.
Three out of four rocks sitting at the edge of the valley have become objects of worship, with believers praying to them for prosperity and rubbing them to cure diseases.
“I don’t know why the three rocks are powerful, as it is a superstitious belief dating back to the beginning of settlement on the mountain. I don’t know when locals started to have this belief,” said Sorn.
The monk, who moved from Steung Meanchey pagoda, added: “When I arrived here in 1982, the area had almost nothing and it was not easily accessible. I brought with me a hundred nuns to meditate in the pagoda.
“This is the first pagoda and I developed the place from a wooden house for worship into what it is today. I started with a temple next to those three rocks and eventually built a dining hall, monk’s house and a main temple. Currently, with the support of all Buddhist followers, we are constructing a new temple to install Buddha statues,” said Sorn, who claimed that he is now 99 years old and nine months.
The main temple is a reminder to locals of the hard work put into its construction, with building materials transported by porters who climb 1,345 steps to reach the construction site.
“The construction work is very challenging, especially in terms of transporting building materials. We offer villagers 20,000 riel ($5) to carry a bag of cement to the construction site. We also rent a tractor for carrying heavier materials, which costs us another 100,000 riel per load,” said Sorn, who is the only monk permanently residing in the pagoda.
Despite nearing his centenary year, the monk continues to traverse the mountain to buy materials and seek funding.
He said: “The foundation stone laying ceremony for this main temple was carried out in 2015 and the construction is still ongoing because I used some of the donated funds for other purposes.
“I spent some money on building a bridge, a road and concrete stairs for hikers who visit the mountain from Sangkum Thmei district, so that they will no longer have to hang on to plants along the route.”
Taking a breather along the path on his journey to deliver zinc roofing weighing more than 50kg, Nou Thy, 32, shared his experience of carrying materials to the mountain top to earn a living.
“One day I can carry things four or five times, but on certain days when I feel a little lazier, I limit my trips to only three times a day. We usually get 20,000 riel for each trip, but the amount of payment we get depends on the donations which the monk receives,” he said.
Chen Norn, 56, who has been working as a hired labourer for more than 10 years, said the cost of the construction materials is much higher as they need to be transported up the mountain.
Even when transporting a motorbike, it needs to be dismantled into three parts and carried to the peak. Similarly, a tractor needs to be dismantled into many pieces and reassembled at the top.
“For instance, I only carry three dozen bottles of drinking water for each trip because I am old. And for that, I make 2,000 riel each trip,” said Norn, who earns from 15,000 to 20,000 riel a day as a porter.
Thy, Norn and other people, mostly hired labourers working as porters, always have their lunch in the Dombouk Khmao and Thmor Bei Dom pagodas, where they also take part in the construction work.
Despite the high cost of building a pagoda on top of Phnom Tbeng, the monk still tries to accommodate worshippers with proper facilities and accommodation.
Oum Soun, 60, from Kampong Thom’s Kampong Kdey district, who was visiting with five other women aged between 45 and 60 years, said they came here to pray for prosperity and wish for the Three Rocks to cure their diseases.
One women who struggled to reach the mountain peak spent one night at the Three Rocks pagoda before heading back the next morning.
Sorn does not expect to receive food offerings during the Pchum Ben season from locals in Phnom Tbeng, but he hopes that Buddhist followers and travellers who visit contribute to the temple’s construction fund.